In 2003, when I was diagnosed with leukemia, I was a fit 48-year-old who exercised regularly and ate well. It shocked me to be told I had cancer. I thought that my healthy lifestyle should have protected me.
But my doctor explained that there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. Basically, I was a member of the bad luck club.
I’m not alone.
A study published last week in the journal Science showed that two-thirds of all cancers types can be attributed to chance genetic mutations rather than specific risk factors. In other words, bad luck.
Researchers Bert Vogelstein and Cristian Tomasetti of Johns Hopkins University used a mathematical analysis of the genesis of cancer that suggests many cases are not preventable.
Drawing on published literature, they estimated the number of cells in an organ, the percentage that are long-lived stem cells, and how many times the stem cells divide.
According to an explanation on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “With every division, there's a risk of a cancer-causing mutation in a daughter cell. Tomasetti and Vogelstein reasoned that the tissues that host the greatest number of stem cell divisions are those most vulnerable to cancer. When Tomasetti crunched the numbers and compared them with actual cancer statistics, he concluded that this theory explained two-thirds of all cancers.”
Because of this, Tomasetti says that a focus on prevention would not avert those two-thirds of cancers. "We should focus more resources on finding ways to detect such cancers at early, curable stages," he explains.
But that doesn’t mean people should throw caution to the wind.
Being otherwise healthy helped me do well during grueling chemotherapy and my first stem cell transplant in 2003.
And over the course of the next dozen years, having worked hard to get back in shape, I had the strength to come through two relapses and three more transplants, preceded by chemotherapy each time.
Some of the most common and deadly cancers are still heavily influenced by lifestyle, in addition to viruses and family history. These include:
• Basal cell carcinoma — a type of skin cancer made more common by too much exposure to UV rays
• Lung cancer — strongly linked to smoking
• Colon cancer — increased by poor diet and family risk genes
Two common types of cancer — of the breast and prostate — were not analyzed, as the researchers could not find a consistent rate of stem cell division in those tissues.
Meanwhile, healthy habits play a vital role in preventing heart disease, which is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, and in preventing Type 2 diabetes, the most common form, which is also among the top 10 causes of death in the country.
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